Software Erasure of Hard Drives and ExpertEraser Technical Description 1. Introduction.

Today we live in the information age. This means that information is a commodity, and as such must be protected. There are two fundamental ways that information can become a serious threat, namely loss of information, and uncontrolled spreading of information. This paper will discuss software erasure as a method to eliminate the threat associated with unintentional spreading of information stored on hard drives. So what does it mean that a drive is securely erased? In our opinion, it means that it is impossible for an attacker to recover any data from any area of the hard drive. An attacker should not be able to deduce anything about the previously stored data on the drive, except that it is now erased. The next question then is how do we achieve this? As stated, we believe that erasing a drive with the proper high quality software is a good solution. To justify this we must first look at what is going on inside a hard drive. If you are satisfied that overwritten data cannot be recovered, you may skip to section 3. “Software Requirements”


Hard Drive Technology

In the context of data erasure there are two aspects of a hard drive that are important: • • The physics and methods involved in the write and read processes How the drive physically access the data

The physics of the erase process This section will try to describe the physical process of erasing data. Since erasing data is done by overwriting the data with new unclassified data, this section will discuss the ‘normal’ read and write operations of a drive. Magnetic recording rely on a material property called magnetic remanence. This could be thought of as a material’s ability to ‘remember’ the direction of it’s last magnetization. All hard drives on the market today (2000) utilize something called saturation recording. This can be though of as a digital process in the sense that the magnetic media (the platters) are fully magnetized in one of two directions (N-S or S-N). Thus the process of writing is a matter of magnetizing small areas of the platters in one of these two directions. It is also important to note that the write process is non-linear (as dictated by the hysteresis curve).


Modern hard drives use direct overwrite, which means that new data is written directly over old data. There is no erasing prior to writing as there is for some magnetic tape systems. Two very important aspects of the reading process is the read process model, and the signal to noise ratio of the process. Model: To be able to read data, the drive use a theoretical model of the signal, the read process, and how magnetic transitions interact. Very simplified we can say that this model represent what the disk drive expect the data signal to look like (the most popular method today is called PRML=Partial Response Maximum Likelihood.) All modern hard drives use this or a similar linear model in the read process. We said earlier that the write process is non-linear, and how does this relate to the linear read model assumption? It turns out that the combination of something called pre-compensation and saturation recording make the linear model fairly accurate (for moderate signal to noise ratios). Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR): The SNR tells us the relative strengths of the signal (the data), and unwanted noise. Information Theory tells us that there is an upper limit to how much data we can store and reliably retrieve at a given SNR. Advances in storage technology have made possible drives that operate very close to this limit. With this in mind, lets look at what happens when we overwrite old data with new data. The effect of writing over old data will because of the saturation recording technique, (theoretically) reduce the old signal to zero (no signal left). However, because of real world effects (i.e. the shape of the hysteresis curve), some small fraction of the old signal will remain. However, the noise level will stay the same, and hence SNR for the old data is dramatically reduced. We must also remember that the write process is non-linear. Thus we can summarize that the overwrite process has two effects: First of all the SNR is reduced well below the limit that permits reading and decoding the signal, and second, whatever small fraction of signal is left has undergone a non-linear transformation, which means the linear read model is no longer valid. This means that the resulting total signal after overwriting data is NOT the new signal plus a small attenuated version of the old signal, but rather the new signal plus a seriously (nonlinearly) distorted residue from the old data drowned in head and media noise. We have not been able to find in the literature anything that would make it possible to convert this noisy residue back to the original data. Based on this we can conclude that overwriting is a secure way of erasing data. This of course requires that the whole physical area used to store data really is overwritten.


Electromechanical access Since the different data areas on a hard drive is accessed using an electromechanical servo system, there is always the possibility of errors called TMR (Track Mis-Registration), and a small risk that portions of the old data area is not physically overwritten. Although the portions not overwritten due to TMR are very small, and extremely hard to decode, it is possible at least in theory. The cause of TMR is mainly spindle run-out (NRR), and air turbulence, and therefore the tracking errors are randomly spaced around the track. This means that multiple write passes (revolutions) can eliminate the probability that an area is not overwritten. Thus, we can conclude that properly designed software can be used to securely erase data. The next section will discuss which properties such software should have.


Software Requirements

The previous section showed that overwriting using properly designed software tool can be used to securely erase data from hard drives. In this section we will discuss three properties we feel is desirable in such a tool: 1. 2. 3. Easy to use: The tool should be simple to use, and thereby make it hard for the user to make mistakes. Complete erasure: The tool should erase all user data on the physical drive. Audit Trail: The tool should leave an audit trail, such that each erasure can be logged and checked.

To attain these properties attention should be paid to the following: User Interface: The user interface should be clear and make the program easy to use. The user should be asked to make as few decisions as possible, and be presented with only the information necessary to make those decisions. This prevents ‘information overload’, and minimise the possibility of overlooked or misinterpreted information. Sanitising: The tool should be a sanitation tool, i.e. a tool that overwrites all blocks on the drive. This means that the tool does not have to pay attention to the logical structure of the data stored on the drive, thereby eliminating the risk associated with the configuration errors in the partition table, the FAT/MFT or other system areas. Independent of OS: An erase tool that utilise the OS API must relate to the logical structure on the drive. In particular the tool may use the partition table, which is used to partition a large physical drive into two or more smaller logical drives (typically called C: and D:) This means that the logical structure stored on the drive will influence which areas on the drive is actually overwritten. Furthermore, the tool will not handle drives formatted for a different OS’ (An example is the commercially available tool WipeInfo which cannot be used to erase drives formatted for MAC or Unix). Independent of BIOS: An OS usually let the BIOS handle low level communication with the physical drive. There are lots of different brands and versions of BIOS in


the market, and they may handle the disk drive differently. The BIOS is involved in at least three operations that could preclude secure and complete erasure. 1. Host Protected Area Feature Set: Modern ATA drives have the capability to reserve areas of the drive. These areas can only be accessed through special commands defined in the ATA specification. Some BIOS use this capability to store system information. One example of this is the hibernation feature found on laptop computers. The BIOS reserve an area on the drive where it stores information from open windows, applications etc. before it powers down to preserve battery power. The BIOS does not give users or programs access to this hibernation area. 2. Geometry translation: The blocks on a drive can be accessed by specifying an CHS address (Cylinder Head Sector). However modern drives do not have a constant geometry across the platter surface (there are more sectors/cylinder on the outer edge of the disk than on the inner.) Therefore, the storage capacity of modern drives is specified in number of blocks (LBA capacity). But for compatibility, the BIOS and drives still support CHS addressing. Most drives actually support different combinations of CHS parameters, also called CHS translation. When the chosen CHS translation does not ‘go evenly into’ the LBA capacity, we get what is referred to as orphan sectors. These are blocks on the drive that cannot be addressed with CHS addresses, but only with LBA addresses. A very simple illustration is a drive with 10 blocks, and a CHS translation C=2, H=2, S=2. With this translation it is only possible to address 8 (2x2x2) out of 10 blocks. 3. Last cylinder handling: Some BIOS reserve some cylinders of the drive for its own use. These cannot be overwritten using the BIOS API. Based on this, we recommend that erasure tools not use the BIOS to access hard drives. Handling of media defects: Even drives of high quality may develop media defects. If an erasure tool encounter soft-errors, this should be reported to the user, and the erase process should be stopped, or considered void. This kind of problems may indicate that the drive has bad-spots on its media, and that it has re-allocated blocks. Where possible (SCSI drives), such re-allocated blocks should also be overwritten. Audit Trail: The tools should provide documentation that the erasure has been completed successfully. The documentation should include all relevant information about the erasure process. Furthermore the documentation should be tamper proof, and make it possible to cross check several sources to verify the information.


Technical Description of ExpertEraser

In this section we will describe the erasure tool ExpertEraser developed by Ibas AS. We will cover two topics: The method of operation, and the quality control system. ExpertEraser Method of Operation:


ExpertEraser use overwriting to achieve secure erasure of data. This means that the old, possibly sensitive, data is replaced by new insensitive data. ExpertEraser is a sanitation tool, which means that all user data areas of the drive are overwritten. The ability to access data areas on a hard drive is determined by the way the drive is accessed by the software. Harddrive access: ExpertEraser can erase both SCSI and IDE type drives. Of key importance for both types is that all areas are accessed and erased. The normal way an application communicates with hard drives (SCSI and IDE) is through the BIOS API. This is fine for normal use and operation of a computer system, but has its drawbacks when it comes to secure erasure of data. One them is that the application does not have direct access to the drive, and is thereby limited to the services that is made available through the BIOS API. Another is that the BIOS may reserve certain areas of the drive for internal use. These areas could contain sensitive information, but cannot be accessed through the BIOS Service (Int 13). Because of this ExpertEraser communicates directly with the drives that shall be erased. For SCSI drives ExpertEraser utilize the SCSI-2 standard (ANSI X3.1311994) through an ASPI driver (Advanced SCSI Programmer’s Interface). For IDE drives ExpertEraser communicates directly with the EIDE interface hardware using the ATA/ATAPI-4 specification (ANSI X3.*** 199?, Draft T13/1153D). By having direct control, ExpertEraser can access and erase all data areas on a drive. This also means that ExpertEraser is independent of previous partitioning of the drive, operating system and BIOS. In summary: Because ExpertEraser communicate directly with drives, it can access and erase all data areas of a drive as required by sanitation tools. As we have seen in the “Hard Drive technology” section, a small residue from the old data can still be detected after being overwritten. The fact that it is possible to detect (but not decode) remains of old data has led to erasure specifications that in some cases require more than one time overwriting. Three examples of such standards are DoD 5220.22M, NAVSO P-5239-26, and the Norwegian Data Security Directive (DSD): DoD 5220.22M: Fixed Disk media should be sanitized by the following process: First write a pattern to all locations on the drive, then write its complement, and then a third pattern. DsD: Depending on the classification and new environment of the data, the DSD require one or seven times overwriting. (See. There are presently two levels of erasure available in ExpertEraser: Level 1 and level 2. Level 1: Sanitize the media by overwrite all data locations once. The pattern written is a block full of question marks (hex code 3Fh) with a header that is used to aid the QC system built into ExpertEraser.

Level 2:

Sanitize the media by overwriting all data locations seven times.


- Pass 1: Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass 2: 3: 4: 5: 6: 7:

Pattern is cryptographically secure random sequence. (Produced by the ISAAC algorithm) Pattern is all zeros (00h) Pattern is all ones (FFh) Pattern is all zeros (00h) Pattern is all ones (FFh) Pattern is all zeros (00h) Pattern is “IBAS”, with a header similar to the one used for level 1.

Level 2 erasure meet the requirements of the standards mentioned above. ExpertEraser QC system: In addition to the algorithms to securely sanitize a drive as described above, ExpertEraser also contain a tamper proof system for quality control (QC). This system is designed to do three things: To document the erase process, and to provide an audit trail, such that each erasure process can be traced, and to detect discrepancies in the technology or procedures. ExpertEraser achieves these goals by recording information about each erasure in several different places: Report file: For each erasure ExpertEraser generates a report file. This file is an ASCII file containing among other information the following: - Time and date erase process started - Level of erasure - Security key serial number - Status. Specifically how was the erasure terminated. - Storage unit identification information (derived from serial number) - Capacity of storage unit - Serial Signature, a signature derived from storage unit serial number - Certificate Signature, a signature to protect information that goes on the certificate. - Report Signature, a signature protecting vital information in the report. Security button: To aid in license and quality control, ExpertEraser utilize a hardware device called Dallas iButton. This device is connected to one of the PC’s IO ports (printer/serial), and is a secure, password protected storage device. During the erase process, ExpertEraser record information about the erasure. When these buttons are refilled, the information stored on them will be analyzed and archived. For each erasure the following data is recorded: Time and date erase process started Level of erasure Capacity of storage unit Status. Specifically how was the erasure terminated. Progress (how far has the process progressed 0-100%) Storage unit identification information (derived from serial number)


Storage unit: After the last overwrite pass in an erasure each block will have the following information: Time and date erasure process started Level of erasure Security key serial number Storage unit type and model number Storage unit serial number Electronic signature for the information

Erasure Certificate: When the data owner want to document that data is erased, he will get a certificate. To have a proper audit trail, the certificate will (at least) contain the following data: Time and date erasure process started Level of erasure Security key serial number Storage unit model number Storage unit serial number ExpertEraser version number Electronic signature for this information

The trace ability is achieved by cross checking these sets of information. It is of great importance that tampering with these data should be prevented and detected. There are two mechanism which will prevent and/or detect any tampering with the audit trail. The first one is the security built into the Dallas iButton itself. ExpertEraser use the DS1991 iButton which provide secure password protected data storage ( This means that to access and alter information inside the button, a 64 bit id, and a 64 bit password is required. Without these there is no way to change the information stored in the button. The second mechanism used to detect tampering is 128 bit electronic signatures. ExpertEraser use a secret password to seed the MD5 algorithm to generate these signatures (for information about MD5, see There are four such signatures built into the system: - Serial Signature: - Certificate Signature: - Report Signature: - Header signature: This is a signature derived from storage unit serial number The trace information that goes on the certificate is protected by a signature. All vital information in the erasure report is protected by a report signature. The trace information written to the storage unit is protected by a signature

These two mechanisms will ensure that any tampering with the audit trail can be detected.




In this paper we have covered the topic of erasing hard drives using a software tool. We have discussed the physical and theoretical aspects of writing and reading magnetic media, and seen that if we can ensure that all areas are written, we will have very high security. We have also seen which properties a software tool should have to ensure that 100% of the data areas are covered and erased. And finally we have given a technical description of ExpertEraser; a product which was designed to have these properties.